On Music and Worship

There is a satirical joke about us Unitarian Universalists. Why can’t UUs sing very well? Because we are always looking ahead to see whether we agree with the words. And it must be said that, like all satire, this is based on truth, though, again like all satire, it exaggerates that truth. There are UUs who can sing quite well indeed, thank you very much! But we really do feel free to change words we do not agree with, even to the extent of destroying the integrity of the hymn and creating nothing but a mess.

The reality is that far too many of us have little understanding of the relationship between music and worship and think that singing a hymn is about the words, that it is an affirmation of whatever it is that the words say. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Hymns are songs, not creeds, and like all songs they are a combination of music and poetry. Neither is the whole story. It is the combination that makes it work…or not work as the case may be.

Consider a parallel. Think about, say, Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta. Would you resist being moved by it because you are not a Christian? Or think about Handel’s “Messiah”. Would you refuse to sing it or attend a performance because you are not a Christian? Would you refuse to attend a performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” because you’re not Catholic? Even if it were being sung folded into the entire liturgy of the Requiem Mass and sung in a cathedral as part of a funeral? Surely this would be foolish and would demonstrate a sad lack of understanding of the power and importance of music in worship.¬†How is this any different from the attitude satirized in this joke?

Several years ago, I was at the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, and wandered through the gallery containing Andrew Wyeth paintings. This is something I make a point of doing whenever I am in or near Philadelphia. I had seen many of these paintings before, of course, but then I rounded a corner and was stopped in my tracks. It was new painting. It was called “Alone”, a depiction of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns. His disciples had abandoned him. He was ragged, exhausted, looking off into the distance. One thorn was pressed against an eyelid, partially closing it. His hair was dirty and stringy. I could not move. I simply stared at the pointing, I have no idea how long. And I wept. Openly. Right there in the museum. Not caring who saw me or what they thought. I could do no other. I am not a Christian, but that painting opened to my soul.

Another time I was attending a performance of the Mozart Requiem. The first chorus began, and I was lifted from my seat, drawn above the audience by the sounds of these voices raised in music. Suddenly I knew something about death that I had never understood before. I am not Catholic, but this requiem spoke to my soul.

Worship, at its best and most effective, is designed open to the deepest and most powerful places within our hearts and souls. To get to that place, we must let our rational mind relax and give over to our intuitive mind. This is why art and worship are inextricably entwined. Art makes worship work, and music is the art that more than any other does this in our culture, especially vocal music. As a colleague once said to me, “The worship floats on a sea of music.” To break the poetry away from the music is to destroy the art and hobble the worship. If your heart can be opened by a statue or a painting that is does not depict your own mythology, why would you deny that power to a song or an anthem?

When well done, the words and the music integrate, become something more than either alone. A new thing is created, a new thing that has the power to transform your soul, even though you object to the words when they are lifted out of the music. And so I say, leave them there, nestled into the music, and allow the art to penetrate your heart and change you. That, after all, is what worship is really about: the transformation and healing of your broken heart.


1 thought on “On Music and Worship

  1. Sundra Flansburg

    This is a beautiful, thought-provoking piece. Your reflections made me also think about the interfaith work I have been involved in through our community based organizing group. My understanding of, and what I get out of, working with people from institutions that approach the work from different places has evolved so much from the beginning, when many of us felt prayers and so on should just take out words or concepts that were from different belief systems. How much richer it is when we ensure not only that different voices are heard, but that we listen to them and engage with the difference.


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